The career mistake that will haunt you forever


When you look back over your career regrets, you’re more likely to be haunted by the job you did not take than the work mistakes you actually did make. Why? A new paper published in the journal Emotion has looked into why inaction stings longer than other failures.

The researchers found that we deeply regret not becoming the person we wanted to become — “the ideal self” — more than we regret not becoming the person society and expectations says we ought to become — “the ought self.” We take more action with ought self-regrets, but those could’ve crossroads in our careers can fester within us for years without relief.

What-ifs haunt us longer than ought-tos

When participants were asked to name their single biggest regret in life, respondents were 76% likely to mention a regret about not fulfilling a goal of the ideal self. They were all moments around what the respondent could have done but failed not to do, like go on that date, or take that once-in-a-lifetime job.

The researchers suggest that what-ifs cause us longer sorrow because we cannot address them in the way we can with ought self-regrets. An ought self-regret would be lashing out at a co-worker, an action that does not align with the good employee society expects you to be. Participants rated these regrets with more urgency than ideal self-regrets. The guilt over making a mistake spurs us more quickly to action. You can make amends to that coworker. You can change your attitude and behavior.

But we do not address ideal self-regrets with the same urgency that we do with ought self-regrets, researchers found. Participants said they would take more steps to repair ought self-regrets than regrets about not living up to the dream version of themselves.

This has a hidden cost. Left unattended, the discontent over dreams unrealized lingers. When participants failed to live up to their ideal self, they labeled these moments “unfinished business,” or unresolved regret. These emotions had longer staying power. It’s why you still regret not taking that exciting job overseas years later. You have to live with your choice. You cannot take back or fix what you never actually did.

This finding lines up with writer George Saunders’ advice to Syracuse graduates.

“What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness,” he cautioned. “Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.”

What he still thought about years later, he said, was a moment of inaction where he failed to rise to the occasion. He noticed a girl being bullied, and although he never bullied her himself, he never helped her directly, and she moved away before he could repair the hurt. That failure to speak up has stayed with him far longer than other hurts, he said.

So next time you are facing a crossroads in your career, weigh the decision carefully. What you did not choose may come back to haunt you.

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